Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Emily Ruskovich revisits Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
My parents had known each other for only three weeks when my dad asked my mom to marry him. She was stunned by his proposal, and so she said, Let me think about it. And she sat there for a few minutes in silence, thinking, while my dad, in agony, sat there and watched her think.
After considering the question logically, my mom said yes, for five reasons. She laughs when she tells this story, though she assures me that it’s true. In those few minutes, she decided that even though she hardly knew my dad, she ought to marry him because:
- He, like her, ate the entire apple, swallowed the core and all the seeds, so she knew he was not wasteful or pretentious.
- He, like her, had always wanted to name a son the unusual name Rory, and that seemed an important, even wistful, thing to have in common.
- My dad knew all the words to the Kenny Loggins song “House at Pooh Corner,” so she knew he was probably kind to children.
- He, like her, was an Idaho Democrat.
- Most importantly, while they were dating those three weeks, they read Watership Down.
That was the tipping point for my mom: if this strange and loud man could become so invested in the fates of rabbits as to have tears fill his eyes while he read, then he was, without question, a good man. They’ve been married now for thirty-three years.
I didn’t read Watership Down as a child, though I remember seeing it around the house. I remember knowing that this book was a part of the story of my parents’ love, and it was eerie to me that, in a way, I owed my life to this 1970s paperback. I was mesmerized by the cover, the dignity in that rabbit’s eye, the sense of danger in that golden air all around him. The cover was shot through with white bolts where it had been creased, and perhaps it was from those severe folds that I divined the rabbit’s trepidation, and therefore felt my own trepidation about reading it.
My younger siblings had seen the animated adaptation and had told me there was a lot of blood. Rabbits fighting? Rabbits killing one another in a war? I didn’t want to see that. Unlike my brother and my older sister, who had both been attacked by rabbits, I had never known a rabbit to be violent. Rabbits were prey, tender and strange, and I loved them deeply. They were, and still are, a crucial part of my own life story. Even as I write this, my Flemish Giant Marjorie rests on a towel on my desk beside my laptop, her red fur clinging with static to the screen. She is still young, but she is a member of the largest rabbit species on earth, a direct descendent from the Rabbits of Old. She expresses her emotions with subtlety. She likes the sound of my fingers tapping the keys. She chatters her teeth to purr—I can’t hear the chatter, but I can feel the vibration when I pet her forehead.
In one sense, I admit that rabbits make for difficult pets. They can be offish, easily startled, distrustful, and resigned. But look at one’s face and you know: this is the embodiment of kindness. A friend once pointed out to me that a rabbit’s skull is even shaped like the human heart. Their stoicism is touching to me: a rabbit makes no sound in all its life, except, in the moment of violent death, a rabbit can scream. I have heard that scream maybe once before. It is a terrifying sound. To know that such a sound exists deep inside the silent body of my rabbit, and to know it is a sound she is saving up inside of her for the moment of her eternity, or at least for her moment of terror, and to know that she builds herself around that future scream, is a special kind of sadness for me.
I saw that sadness on the cover of Watership Down. As I grew older, rabbits, like everything, became more complicated to me. I have seen the aftermath of a mother rabbit tearing her newborn kits to shreds; I have had a rabbit leap at my hand one dark summer night and bite me so badly that it was difficult to stop the blood. The wound throbbed for days. And I have seen two rabbits fall in love. Truly—two rabbits who spent all their days licking one another’s eyes, licking one another’s foreheads. When one died suddenly from a botfly in her brain, the other was so devastated that he became a different rabbit—angry, bitter, defiant. He would thump so hard out in his pen at night, challenging coyotes, that I would wake, panicked, thinking someone was breaking into the house. Such power in one little rabbit—both of strength and of heart.
It is that power that Richard Adams believed in and rendered in his novel. I read Watership Down for the first time when I was twenty-five. I didn’t read it as an allegory—I read it as a story about rabbits. The quote from the London Times on the back of the book still gives me chills: “I announce with trembling pleasure, the appearance of a great story.”
Never has a quote on the back of a book captured so perfectly my own feelings: this is the novel I love most in the world. I wrote to Richard Adams a couple of times, to tell him so, and sent him a photograph of the two rabbits I had who were in love. He wrote back. He told me he was moved to hear my parents had fallen in love as they read his book.
About a year after I read the novel, my boyfriend, Sam, gave me a collection of CDs. He and I lived in different states and were very lonely for each other. So, for months, in secret, he had been recording himself reading Watership Down as a way to be close to me. He lived in a cabin with wood-paneled walls, so at first the echo on the recording was terrible. But then he made himself a studio by hanging sheets down from the ceiling around the couch, and there he read for hours every night.
On those CDs, I found twenty-four hours of his voice, chapters alternating with letters he spoke to me. Four hundred pages of a rabbit adventure, read by the man I loved. I paced myself, to spread those beautiful twenty-four hours over the rest of that year apart. I listened to those rabbits make their harrowing journey as I rode the bus from Madison, Wisconsin, to Dubuque, Iowa, where Sam would be waiting for me to tell him what had just transpired in the lives of the rabbits he now knew so well.
We included this story—and my parents’ story—in our wedding vows, years later. Watership Down is a kind of inheritance, a force that runs in my family, something that holds us together. When my cousin, who has autism spectrum disorder, read the novel at my urging, she told me that the way Adams’s rabbits related to each other was the way she related to other people. She felt that Adams, more than any other fiction writer, had tunneled inside of her psychology and rendered her own emotions and behaviors perfectly in his rabbits. She felt comforted by the rabbits’ straightforward approach to their emotions and said that reading the novel might actually help neurotypical people understand autism in a new way.
Shortly after Christmas, a dear friend wrote to me to tell me that Richard Adams had passed away on Christmas Eve. I had spent my Christmas out in the country, and I hadn’t heard the news.
What a tremendous loss for all of us. Such a beautiful and whole heart gone from the world. We are lucky he left his imagination behind.
I will continue to think of him when I give my rabbits an evening silflay of timothy hay, or when I hear the rumble of a hrududu in the distance and my rabbits’ bodies tense in the grass. Again and again, an image from Adams’s life returns to me: of him and his dearest friend, Ronald Lockley, an ornithologist who was also one of the most renowned rabbit experts in the world, who once traveled across Antarctica together. I picture them, those old friends who so admired one another, one a poet at heart, one a scientist, walking along in all that vast and sparkling white, talking about rabbits.
I know it probably wasn’t quite like that, but when I reread the final page of Watership Down and see Hazel leap into his beautiful afterlife, I think of Adams and Lockley among the snowdrifts. Toward the end of the novel, the mythical black rabbit of death, a ghost rabbit of peace and power, appears beside the aged rabbit hero, Hazel, after he has brought two great rabbit societies together to live a peaceful life in the downs. The black rabbit suggests to Hazel that he come to join his Owsla. “If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
The final words of the novel are a great comfort to me as I mourn the loss of Adams, who, though he is gone, has brought us together:
It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right—and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel Idaho is now out in paperback. She teaches in the M.F.A. program at Boise State University.